“Helen” is the episode of Atlanta that I’ve been waiting for. Of course it’s centered around Van. Last week, I mentioned we hadn’t seen much of her yet, but it’s finally happened. She’s arrived. But before we start, it should be noted (and loudly, from the heavens!) that this one was directed by Amy Seimetz and written by Taofik Kolade (in his first-ever episode of television!).
I just have to say it again: This episode is all Van’s. It is its own marvel in a consistently marvelous show, a high point and an event.
The episode starts with Earn giving Van cunnulingus, so let’s start there. I think it’s the first time in the entire series that we really see female pleasure — the women of Atlanta are, more often than not, portrayed as accoutrements, or means to an end, or detours on the road to some bit. If you’ve been following along with me, then you know that my biggest gripe with Robbin’ Season thus far is the lack of screen time for Van. When we finally did see her, three (3!) episodes in, she was an accessory for Earn: the person who picked up his bills, his date (although he didn’t even use that word), his “you can dance with my girl over there.” There was an entire episode in the look of disdain Van gave Earn at the end of “Money Bag Shawty,” and it may have taken a minute for that particular narrative to come about, but we’re getting it in “Helen.”
Van and Earn find themselves driving out of Atlanta for some sort of German festival. We’re never given a clear answer on why Van is fluent, specifically, (although it looks like she’s spent some time abroad, and also she may have studied German in school), but what matters is that she’s able to fit in with these folks, in her own way. It’s a mostly white crowd. Most of the crowd is absolutely oblivious. There are, naturally, the obligatory cross-cultural blunders: the German game that all of the white people (and Van) understand, to Earn’s detriment. The woman who admires Earn’s “costume” enough to touch him, only to find that he’s actually not in blackface.
If Earn found himself out of place in the episodes prior, navigating the world with Darius and Alfred, he is absolutely at a loss now. In a direct contrast to the airs he put on in his escapade with Van last season, he finds himself unable to put them on now – not because he can’t (because he can), but because he can’t bring himself to care. He says that this isn’t his world, but the look on his face says that he thinks he’s above it. And there’s a difference in that chasm that starts to play across Van’s face. (Although maybe the point here is that there are many worlds in this one, and we have to choose which ones we’d like to work to be a part of. Maybe the point is that it’s a choice.)
When Van grabs a drink a little later, she makes conversation with a bartender (sans subtitles, to mirror Earn’s alienation, unless you speak German!), and it is the most comfortable we’ve seen her all season. Her shoulders are relaxed. She’s laughing. In last week’s episode, she was just along for the ride, with everything happening in this sort of floating along way. Here, with this guy, she’s making jokes. Laughing at his. It doesn’t matter that most American viewers won’t understand them. We don’t need to know what she’s saying, only that she is comfortable saying it, and that this comfort is discomforting to Earn. He gripes about it. And then, a little later, ejects himself from the event entirely. He calls the whole thing stupid.
But that’s when, all of a sudden, a pretty magical thing happens: The episode changes. We lose Earn entirely. We’re given Van in her own element. She’s a black woman at a festival for a culture that isn’t her own. There are so many different reasons that people turn to cultures outside of themselves, or attempt to find a home in them: Sometimes, it’s shame from where they’re coming from. Sometimes, they’re looking for acceptance that they haven’t found elsewhere. Sometimes, it’s born out of something that they admire, or something that feels truer to them than what they’re told they should adhere to. Sometimes, it’s something that simply interests them, but when was the last time we saw a young black woman on television pursuing a milieu so far outside of the dominant American narrative of who and what she should be?
In the best of cases, Earn would be the partner who accepts Van for who she is. He wouldn’t ignore the fucked-up microaggressions, but he’d chalk them up to the day. And he’d chalk the day up to being something that happened in his relationship with Van: a sacrifice. When he doesn’t do that, choosing instead to denigrate Van for her interests, that’s when what began as a cautionary tale evolves into a slow decline, dropping the other shoe on Van and Earn’s relationship.
Now, I know there are some viewers who will inevitably feel for Earn. And that’s their right, by all means. But you can miss me with that. He is being, as Van notes, “a fucking baby,” even if he is our deeply sidetracked Odysseus. This episode is about many things, but chief among them it illustrates the ways in which a partner can be grown away from, and outgrown, and how neither of these things is bad, although resisting either can be fatal.
Walking away from the event, Van meets up with her bartender again. The two of them, alone in the crowd, share one of the most clear-eyed, unshrouded exchanges that the series has given us so far:
“I think love is what you make it,” this guy says. “It’s not up to [Earn] to define it for you. You should start a relationship with yourself, if you really want to learn to love someone.”
“Do you believe that love can die?” says Van.
“Sure, everything dies,” says this guy. “But at least you lived through it.”
“God,” says Van. “You’re so German.”
But she doesn’t say that he’s wrong.
We know that it’s over once we see Earn shoulder-pass this guy, after having silently followed the pair. And we really know it’s over when Van encounters the monster in the alley, finding her phone, and, maybe, herself. The crowd around her — the community that she’s sought and wants to accept her, in its own sort of messed-up way — lift Vanessa up. They call her a warrior. That message is what’s ringing in her ears when she finally confronts Earn, who asks for rematch by the ping-pong table, before she asks him what he wants.
Earn says, “I don’t know what I want. I know that this arrangement works for me.”
“I don’t want to keep waiting around for you,” says Van.
“And I don’t want you to keep wasting your time,” says Earn.
And then Van says, “Let’s settle it.”
And then she squares up.
We don’t need to see that Earn loses this match, because we see it in Van’s face. It is the face of someone who is playing to win: not frantic, or overexerted. She’s calculated. It is as if the match has already been decided, and this is simply another step on her way to the next one. We see it in the shot of the couple in bed the next morning, a direct contrast from the position they started the episode in. We see it in the coolness of their actions on the drive back into Atlanta. And then, once they’ve make it to Van’s place, when she stands him up at the door. Earn waits for her to say something, but what else is there to say?
It means something, I think, that as Van watches Earn pull away from the window, there’s loss but not sadness. She doesn’t linger. She’s on to her next move. And I deeply, deeply hope we get to see what that next move is. Because if Robbin’ Season has shown us a collection of people who lose things, or have things taken from them, Van is the first character this season to come out clean on the other side.